The trial for two men accused of the 2002 murder of Jam Master Jay began with prosecutors alleging that the men had killed the Run-DMC DJ after feeling cut out of a cocaine trafficking deal he was involved in. Defense attorneys for the men countered that the U.S. government had faulty info based on the faded, decades-old memories of witnesses.
The opening remarks took place at the United States District Court – Eastern Division of New York in Brooklyn on Monday morning. Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall is presiding over the cases of Karl Jordan Jr. and Ronald Washington, the two men the U.S. government has indicted in the murder of the DJ, whose real name was Jason Mizell. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty, and each faces a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted; Jordan faces additional charges for drug trafficking.
In opening remarks, U.S. Attorney Miranda Gonzalez outlined the government’s case against the men. Jordan, dressed in a blue suit vest, was Mizell’s godson and grew up across the street from the DJ while Washington, who appeared to be smiling at times, was a childhood friend. Nevertheless, she said Jordan shot a 40-caliber bullet into Mizell’s head at a close enough range that it burnt his hair and skin. She described the alleged murder, in which she claimed Washington stood guard while Jordan pulled the trigger, an “ambush” and an “execution.”
She alleged that the motive for the murder, which took place at a recording studio in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, was due to Mizell dealing drugs after Run-DMC‘s fame began waning in the Nineties and that a cocaine distributor Mizell knew didn’t like Washington and refused to work with him. Jordan, who’d asked Mizell to sell small amounts of cocaine, then teamed with Washington in a plot to kill the DJ, according to the opening statement.
Mizell’s involvement in the drug trade could have provided him with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Gonzalez said. Washington, who was down on his luck and an alcoholic as his counsel later told the court, was staying with Mizell’s sister at the time. Prosecutors allege that Washington and Mizell drove to Baltimore, where the dealer refused to work with Washington on a trade that was worth nearly $200,000. The exclusion left Jordan and Washington with nothing.
Another man, Jay Bryant – who will be tried for Mizell’s death at a later date – entered Mizell’s studio through the front and let Washington and Jordan in through the fire escape in the back, Gonzalez said. Mizell, who had taken to carrying a 380-caliber pistol with him, was playing video games at his studio with a friend around 7:30 p.m. when the men carried out the plot. Once Bryant let Washington and Jordan in, Gonzalez said, Washington stood guard while Jordan shot the DJ with a 40-caliber pistol and fired another shot that hit Mizell’s friend, Uriel “Tony” Rincon, in the leg. Mizell died instantly, she said, and the defendants fled. Other bystanders, including a recording artist and Lydia High, one of Mizell’s business associates, heard the shots in the control room.
The prosecutor believed that Rincon and High kept silent on who killed Mizell out of fear. High didn’t name Washington until nine months later, she said, while Rincon didn’t identify Jordan until 2016. But they told their stories to friends.
The U.S. attorneys hope to prove their case with witnesses who could testify to Mizell’s role as a middleman in cocaine trafficking, as well as Jordan’s and Washington’s roles. They also claim to have statements from the defendants saying they killed Mizell, a hat containing Bryant’s DNA, and proof that, months after the shooting, Jordan owned a 40-caliber gun. Both Rincon and High would testify, she said, as well as other witnesses from the studio that night, since no video evidence exists. Gonzalez said the prosecutors have evidence that Jordan once said, “If Jason Mizell was still alive, he would kill him again,” and Washington telling his girlfriend days after that he’d killed Mizell, a claim he made again nine years later.
The defendants’ opening statements began with lawyer John Diaz speaking on behalf of his client, Jordan. He asked the jury not to judge Jordan on past behavior and said to remember that Jordan’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt for them to convict him. He also cast doubt on the prosecutors’ witnesses, claiming that some may have taken “cooperation agreements” – in essence, plea deals – that would perhaps lessen prison sentences if they gave testimony against Jordan. “You decide whether they tell the truth,” he said.
He also asked the jury to pay attention to discrepancies in how witnesses’ testimonies may have changed over time. All the witnesses had one thing in common, Diaz said: “They’re all testifying about events that happened over 20 years ago.”
Washington’s lawyer, Ezra Spilke, echoed Diaz’s doubts, telling the jury that everything discussed in the trial hinged on 10 seconds that occurred 21 years ago. He called Mizell’s death a tragedy but said that “convicting the wrong person doesn’t correct a tragedy.” He also cast doubt on the NYPD’s investigation into Mizell’s death, saying they had “weeks, months, years, decades” to solve the murder and that even though the authorities entertained many rumors, they couldn’t ascertain who committed the crime. He added that prosecutors had taken witness statements and “stuck them together with tape and glue,” saying they would not hold.
Since Washington was staying with Mizell’s sister, Diaz argued, why would he want to kill his friend? Moreover, he claimed that Washington wouldn’t need Bryant to let him into the studio through the fire escape since Mizell would gladly welcome his friend walking right into the studio. He said there was no DNA or fingerprints connecting Washington to the crime – only aging memories. He called recognizing the fallibility of memory over time “common sense.”
Law enforcement witnesses also took the stand on Monday, starting with retired NYPD Detective James Lusk, a tall man with graying hair and a goatee who was working at the 103rd precinct when he and other officers learned of the shooting.
The prosecution, led by Artie McConnell, presented several photos of the studio, taken both in 2002 after the murder and in 2022, into evidence. The smallish-looking studio was decorated with red couches and gold walls. Mizell died in a small area — his body still on the floor when the photos were taken — as he collapsed in front of a blue couch where Rincon had been howling in agony from his own gunshot. The evidence included photos of bullet holes in the wall and radiator and shell casings on the floor. The defendants looked on stoically as the jury looked at the photos of Mizell’s body silently. EMS pronounced the DJ dead at the scene, Detective Lusk testified.
Although the prosecution had many photos of the studio then and now, they had only recent photos of the fire escape by which the defendants allegedly entered the building. When the defense attorneys questioned Detective Lusk on this, he said he didn’t know why the crime scene unit hadn’t photographed the fire escape at the time.
Prosecution presented an idea of what a security monitor would have shown that night, with a split screen showing the street, fire escape, hall, and entryway, but said they didn’t have footage from the VCR. Lusk told Jordan’s counsel, Michael Hueston, that he was unaware of any video obtained from other locations either.
Washington’s lawyer, Susan Kellman, questioned Lusk about whether he thought it was strange that nobody in the studio, where a cell phone and landline phone were present, would have called 911 for police or an ambulance after the shooting. He said he thought it might have been quicker just for the studio manager, Randy Allen, to walk across the street to the precinct to get help – which is what happened.
The second witness of the day was retired NYPD Detective Robert Sorensen, who helped in documenting the crime scene. The prosecution showed more photos of Mizell’s deceased body to the court, which Sorensen explained how he documented, as well as photos of a 380-caliber handgun found outside near the crime scene. In another photo of the gun, with its magazine removed, Sorensen said that he could not be 100 percent certain if the gun had been dusted for fingerprints from the photos and after 22 years.